Monday, December 01, 2008

Does Dean Singleton read this blog?

I have no idea. But given his latest pronouncements about potential cost-cutting moves, it appears the chief executive officer of Denver-based Media News, owner of more than 50 daily American newspapers, is very much taking direction from a piece I posted on this blog more than 20 months ago.

In it, I suggested that newspaper companies would outsource editing functions to a company in Vietnam. This was part of a fictional account (maybe not so fictional after all) of what happened the day the last U.S. daily newspaper, The Shenandoah Valley News, located in southwestern Iowa, stopped producing a printed edition. (Yes, the newspaper really does exist – at least as of this writing.)

The tragedy of Mr. Singleton’s pronouncement, as reported in yesterday’s New York Times by Maureen Dowd, is that it will likely come true. There have already been reports about newspapers in California attempting to outsource not only editing functions – but also reporting functions – to companies located outside of the United States.

The Chicago Tribune, about two years ago, led some of this outsourcing initiative, when it farmed out its call center – the people who answer the phone if you call to complain about your newspaper delivery, cancel your subscription or put the paper on hold while on vacation – to a company based in the Philippines. Now when you call about your subscription, someone in Manila answers the phone.

It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to consider that, as Mr. Singleton sees it, his newspapers reporters, after writing their stories, would send them via e-mail to a copyeditor on the other side of the globe, who would simply look for grammatical errors.

With any luck, before the story is printed, there will be someone back at the local newspaper to question the reporter about their sources, put the story into context and add anything that might be missing to the article. Given Mr. Singleton’s plans, and his previous behavior, which includes the ability to squeeze out every last penny out of every newspaper he owns, don’t count on it.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the company providing this editing service was found in India. Given that India is home to call centers as well as jobs requiring a high-end skill set, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that the former British colony might very well provide the employees editing English-language newspapers, including those in the United States.

Besides being cheaper, one of the reasons that India is home to jobs that require service skills as opposed to manual labor is because they once hosted a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Norbert Wiener. This scientist, who assisted in the birth of the Information Age, and much of the technology we take for granted today, including cyberspace, told India’s top leaders to concentrate the country’s economic development on high-tech jobs – not manufacturing ones – about 50 years ago. Not only did India listen to Dr. Wiener, they acted on his advice.

(For more on Dr. Wiener, either buy or check out of your local library a recent biography of him, entitled Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, The Father of Cybernetics, by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. It’s a great book and well worth your time, especially if you’re curious about the beginnings of the technology that surrounds us today.)

Mr. Singleton’s actions are par for the course in the American newspaper industry. Like the American automotive industry, this is an industry that’s been told numerous times to produce a product that people want to read and advertisers want to buy. And, too often, when it realizes that the audience has slipped away and that advertisers are reducing the amount of money they spend on newspapers to reach consumers, the American newspaper industry looks like a deer caught in the headlights.

Maybe Singleton and his fellow newspaper CEOs will borrow from the playbook of their cohorts in the American automotive industry and make a trip to Washington to beg for a federal bailout!

Singleton’s announcement is one in a long litany of cost-cutting moves. The newspaper industry has yet to provide a plan to restore its financial health. It slashes jobs, reduces the size of its papers, eliminates many of the sections that readers enjoyed, cuts back on the editorial content and then has the audacity to raise its cover price. As thinking goes in the newspaper industry, this passes for strategic planning. Is it any surprise that people who use to pay for a newspaper instead go to its Web site, which is free, read two or three stories and then consider themselves updated on the day’s events? Not at all!

Jim Oberweis owns a local dairy that sells some of the best milk and ice cream I’ve ever tasted. (He’s also a frustrated local politician who can’t seem to run a winning campaign, which is just fine with me. I’d never vote for him.) But if you order home delivery of his milk, it arrives at your doorstep in a case that keeps the milk cold until you place it in your refrigerator. Jim and his team truly show pride in the way their product is handled.

The newspaper industry would be well served to take a hard look at how Oberweis handles home delivery of its milk. If the newspaper industry stopped believing it produces and delivers a cheap, throw away product, it would take the time to deliver its product right to the doorstep – not the end of a driveway, where it’s subject to weather conditions – with the same care that Jim Oberweis delivers milk. This would demonstrate to its readers that the newspaper industry truly produces something to be treasured – not just a piece of trash.


Leigh Hanlon said...

Occasionally, it's painfully obvious when copy editing or reporting has been outsourced to India.

Meetings take place a "fortnight" from now, rather than in two weeks.

Cars "break" red lights, rather than running them, and wind up hitting the "kerb," not the curb.

A company issues "their" quarterly statement, not its.

Attractive blond women no longer fail to show up when their hungover graduating class assembles at the Aruba airport, they "go missing."

And now for my favorite. Arguments, shouting matches and dustups are things of the past. Americans now have "rows."

Kelly said...

Hi Doug, great blog. Sounds like many conversations you and I shared about why the np industry can't get their act together. I enjoy your writing style. Keep it up!

Kelly said...

Hi Doug, great blog. Sounds like many conversations you and I shared about why the np industry can't get their act together. I enjoy your writing style. Keep it up!

NorieNC said...

Fascinating post, and great comments. It's a whole new cultural influence - with the words and spellings Leigh listed.

Anonymous said...

Good article but also do realize the price one pays for the product that comes from Oberweis. There is no doubt I love Oberweis Ice cream (and longed to have a plant tour in Aurora that never materialized) If you compare the price of milk from say Meijer and the milk you pick from the store on Route 59 you will recognize the cost is vastly different. Today customers are looking for snippets of information in a concise manner. In the age of podcasts I am the odd man out. The newspaper is ultimately being hit because there just aren't too many avid readers.

Jeff Rogers said...

English-language papers in the Middle East, which use British spellings, are happy to hire American journalists, who must adapt as quickly as possible.

It is absolute arrogance to think that India, a nation of more than a billion people, can't produce people who can copy edit for American newspapers.

If you check out India, you'll find a thriving and competitive national press. My company, Express KCS, hires from a large pool of talented editors, builds teams dedicated to a particular publication and trains them on the nuances of that publication and the community it serves. We do not set up a room of hundreds to serve multiple publications.

Are mistakes made? Absolutely. It's not much different than a copy editor who just moved from North Carolina to Texas wanting to change Port Aransas to Port Arkansas. If he's a good copy editor, he'll not make the mistake again. If he's a great editor, he'll check the name before changing it.

If you were asked to edit a page about cricket, you'd certainly be careful and check everything until you learned the rules, the players, teams and game strategies. You'd also be motivated to learn the game quickly so you could work faster. Our editors are in a similar position working from India for U.S. copy., and our implementation model gives them an orientation period to make mistakes early and learn.

One more thought: Outsourcing editing isn't intended to replace a paper's entire copy desk. But most newsrooms spend more on getting copy on the page than on reporting. If some editing can be done at a lower cost to help shift that balance of resources, that better serves the reader, just as outsourcing ad production would free up more dollars to bolster the sales force.

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